United's marathon men keep going
While Manchester United fans descended upon the capital on Sunday, the London Marathon was also being staged in the city.
It feels like a marathon season for the Reds, extended into a 62nd game with our Emirates FA Cup semi-final victory over Brighton & Hove Albion, even if the Europa League run was cut short at Sevilla.
The painful defeat to the Spanish side does, at least, halt the seemingly never-ending spell of midweek assignments but the test of stamina continues for Erik ten Hag's men. Famously, he jogged with the side at Carrington as punishment for the loss at Brentford, the second game of his reign, apparently covering the same distance the Bees had out-run us by on the day.
It feels like the players have not stopped running since, well those involved in the winter World Cup, anyway.
I remember the manager had suggested we would have found it difficult in the Carabao Cup final if the second leg of the Europa League play-off with Barcelona had been away from home. While opponents Newcastle United were able to spend a full week preparing for the big day, United had to stretch every sinew in knocking the runaway La Liga leaders out of the competition a few days earlier, but at least it was at Old Trafford.
However, our latest Wembley assignment came on the back of being in Spain until Friday. The chastening experience at Sevilla was also a mood killer heading into the Brighton & Hove Albion game, prompting a different vibe to the one that led into the comfortable 2-0 triumph over the Magpies in February.
It was probably no coincidence that the bookmakers rated the well-rested Seagulls as strong favourites to win; the chips were down for United, but the players dug deep and fought tenaciously throughout the 120 minutes.
This was Brighton's 37th game of the campaign, compared to match no.53 for United. Yet, even through red-tinted spectacles, it appeared as though Erik's men were the ones coming on strongest during extra-time, despite it coming on the back of the stint on the continent a couple of days earlier.
Much has been made of rotation; Bruno Fernandes became the first man to clock up half-a-century of appearances across the top leagues when captaining the team (and he did well at the World Cup finals) but there does not appear to have been too much credit for the overall fitness of the squad. The support staff at Carrington should surely be recognised for their efforts in this regard and the effects of the behind-the-scenes work will not be lost on Ten Hag.
"We are fit and we are strong," Erik told MUTV after the win at Wembley on Sunday. "It is not the first time. We have had a really bad schedule and, every time, we’ve played great games. Last week at [Nottingham] Forest after a Thursday game and on so many other occasions - it doesn’t affect us.
"It looks even like it’s better that we have many games with less recovery time. The players keep focused, they are in the fight and they are ready for games."
This is modern football. If you're successful, as we hope to be, then the games will rack up. This will be the third time in the last four seasons that we've topped the 60-match mark and stamina is one asset every top-flight player needs.
Yet even if we had gone all the way in the Europa League, we'd still have fallen just short of our record number of fixtures in one season - in 2008/09, we played 66 times, a figure boosted by involvement in the Community Shield, European Super Cup and Club World Cup.
The climax is approaching in 2022/23 and only time will tell if we do have the required energy to achieve our twin aims of backing up the Carabao Cup success with a top-four spot in the Premier League and an FA Cup triumph that would also dash any hopes Manchester City have of emulating our 1999 Treble. However, the signs from Sunday are encouraging that this squad is capable of going the distance.
MOST MATCHES IN A SEASON
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.